Roky Erickson and Doug Sahm Rememberance
Ingle at work back in the day, at Pecan Street Studio
by John IngleThe year was approximately 1970. Dana Gaines was Roky's steady girl/commonlaw wife and lived with Chuck and Sherri Forester across the street from us in the 4300 block of Ave C in Austin. I was living with my good friend Lars Lundahl and his girlfriend, Nancy Ford. Dana was staying with Chuck and Sherri for a few years while Roky was in the state hospital. Dana was a regular visitor, and she came over one day to tell us that she was on her way to the hospital to celebrate Roky's birthday. For his birthday present, she was going to slide a tab of acid under her tongue before she entered and slip it to him when they kissed hello.
I was dumbfounded. Here Roky was, in a mental institution, surrounded by the weirdest bunch of people you'd ever hope to meet, and he wanted a tab of acid to "celebrate." I shuddered to think of what his trip would be like. I wondered if he would ever be able to assimilate into anything resembling "normal" life again after what he'd been through. Dana said whenever she would visit she could tell when they'd been doing electroshock therapy on him because he couldn't focus on anything and he would stare a lot.
I had always enjoyed the 13th Floor Elevators' music. I had been turned onto it by Ralph Thibodeau, a longtime friend who was attending UT (University of Texas) during the mid-to-late '60's and saw the Elevators often at the Vulcan Gas Company. I didn't think about Roky Erickson much until years later, when my business partner, the ever-resonant and fine person Larson Lundahl, and I set up and operated a demo studio next door to our main studio, Odyssey Sound, at 308 West 6th Street in Austin. Odyssey had been the pet project of Jay Podolnick for several years, and we were buying him out to take the studio in more of a commercial direction. Jay had really wanted the studio only for recording himself and his friends, but the rest of us couldn't survive off the goodwill of fellow musicians, and of Eddie Wilson feeding us cheap at the Armadillo.
Part of that transition was to bring in Michael Brovsky of Free Flow Productions, along with his prime local revenue generator, Jerry Jeff Walker. We recorded Walker's Collectables for MCA at Odyssey with Marty Lenard as chief engineer and me as second engineer. As a secondary project, Lars and I had decided that the local talent's biggest problem was not that they weren't talented but that they had very little opportunity for getting in any recording time that would let them hone their craft. To fix that problem, we started a sideline business called Last Minute Productions, complete with a business card showing a white rabbit checking his pocket watch. It was really great fun as we began to record about everyone in Austin who could come up with $150 for a four-hour session on four-track tape. Shirley Dimmick used to bring in Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughn regularly to hone their chops. Lars and I practically taught them how to record in the studio. We also had Plum Nelly, The ElectroMagnets, Milton Carroll, Sid Page, and a thousand other music hopefuls.
A favorite studio joke of ours after a demo session was to tell the band that "we'll have a single on the streets by tomorrow!" That was usually a scary thought for most bands because what they'd just learned was how badly their material came across on tape.
One night in particular, in August 1975, Doug Sahm brought Roky and his "band" in, to record a couple of songs so that Roky could have a demo tape to help him get some gigs and survive a while longer. He was busted broke and had nothing going on. Doug felt really badly that Roky was having a tough time of it, and he wanted to do something to stimulate Roky's bookings. When we brought them in and set them up, Doug and I were "joking" with Roky and the band about the single on the street tomorrow, except that Doug was serious. He told me that Roky really needed a break and that the only way he'd get one would be to get product out and get some gigs lined up. He did admit to wondering whether Roky could be convinced of the need to keep it together, something that Doug was long used to doing under the most unusual of circumstances.
Doug was a serious businessman, something he'd learned the hard way from people like Huey P. Meaux, Ahmet Ertegun, and Jerry Wexler. Doug was "the" Texas Tornado himself. Spend any time around Doug and either your energy level would crank up a notch or you'd be left in the dust wondering what happened.
Well, the session was gray-hazed walls, loud music, straining guitars, two-headed dogs, and some starry eyes. We had recorded both of those tunes and it was fairly surreal--freaky in a way, considering the lyrics we were hearing over and over while we threw on some overdubs and worked on the vocals. If you don't understand, you've never really heard the lyrics to "Two-Headed Dog." Doug had brought his usual "killer" smoke and most people were off in their own universe. Lars and I kept it together and got the thing done--it was a strange night. Doug paid for everything--the smoke, the session, the tape, the copies, and a little "session" money for those that took part. Any stories to the effect that Doug had somehow taken advantage of Roky were ill-informed and didn't reflect the situation that Roky was in. I doubt Doug made his money back on any of it, and it didn't seem he was counting on it. Lars and I ended up using a VSO (variable speed oscillator) on the "Starry Eyes" track, and each chorus we'd ratchet up the speed and pitch and splice on another chorus--it was fantastic and a big hoot.
About six months later, Doug came in and worked an afternoon in the studio with me. He just wanted to do something for himself. He had a fatalistic attitude about music and business, knowing that record companies and much of his fan base wanted Sir Doug, but his heart and his talent was more like a cross between Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles. He proceeded to lay down about five of the most amazing crooner tracks you could imagine. I was dumbstruck. Here was Doug, laying down some of the most awesome music I'd ever recorded and he wasn't planning on sharing it with anyone. I begged him to show it to one of his record execs, but he just laughed and rolled another stogie-sized joint. He always dealt straight with me and was an extremely interesting fellow. I enjoyed our friendship and missed him when he passed on Thursday, November 18th, 1999.
Also see our Roky timeline article
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